Many years ago, some friends and I started meeting for breakfast whenever one of our birthdays rolled around. We were all busy mothers of grade school children, with jobs and volunteer commitments, and breakfast fit nicely into our schedules. We crowded into booths at our local version of a diner, Egg Harbor, and exchanged funny cards and little gifts. As our children got older and our homes became neater, we started getting together at each other’s houses, serving bacon, eggs, and pancakes along with endless cups of coffee. We also started meeting when it wasn’t even anyone’s birthday. We even went out for dinner a few times — but never lunch. The Breakfast Club does not do lunch.
At one of these get-togethers, we talked about starting a book club. Along with families, work, vacation plans, community goings-on, and home renovations, we always end up talking about books and movies. So we decided our club would not be an ordinary book club; it would have a twist. We would read books that were related to movies, and then we’d watch the movies together. Here’s my original email sales pitch to the group:
A friend in Winnetka belongs to a movie/book club. They choose a movie that’s based on a book, and everyone has a choice: either read the book and see the movie, just read the book, or just see the movie. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes they go to the movie as a group (as many of them as possible) or watch the movie together at someone’s house, or sometimes they all end up going separately. Their recent choice was The Book Thief. We could do Philomena or Monuments Men — both based on books. Or we could read a book that is related to the movie — for example, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t based on a book, but it would pair with Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country (about treating AIDS patients). I just checked the movie releases for this month and there’s one due out at the end of the month called Nymphomaniac Part I. Not sure if it’s based on a book (?!)
As anyone knows who’s tried to organize a book club, choosing the book is the most difficult task. I won’t bore you with the details of the decision-making process, but I will tell you that the email chain was very long. (That might be because the discussion also involved choosing a date for our inaugural meeting.) There are seven of us, all with full schedules and strong opinions.
Finally, we chose a book/movie AND a date/willing hostess. Despite one member’s wish to avoid anything sad or depressing, we picked Philomena. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but somehow we convinced her it wasn’t that sad. Philomena is the true story of an Irish girl whose family abandons her to cruel nuns when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The nuns force her to give her child up for adoption and prevent her from ever seeing him again, or even knowing if he is all right. (Honestly, you couldn’t come up with a more sad story than that.) It was a great choice and inspired an interesting discussion (and a few tears). Our discussion centered on the completely different perspectives of the book and the film. The book focuses on the life of Philomena’s son, Michael Hess — as an adoptee, closeted gay man, and Republican political advisor. Philomena herself is peripheral to the book (originally titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), which was written by a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith. The movie, on the other hand, is Philomena’s story — and Martin Sixsmith’s.
Buoyed by the success of our first meeting, we chose another book/movie combination — The Fault In Our Stars. If anything is more tragic than a young woman forced to relinquish her beloved son, it’s two teenagers with terminal cancer. Our group loved John Green’s beautiful novel, and was anxious to see the screen adaptation. One of my favorite aspects of the book is Hazel’s obsession with a novel:
Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.
In the case of The Fault In Our Stars, the screenplay remains almost completely faithful to the book. It didn’t occur to most of us that we would be the only “mature” women in the theater, surrounded by groups of lovesick teenage girls, alternately giggling and crying. (One girl behind us said, “He’s so cute! He’s so cute!” almost every time teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort appeared on screen.) The youthful audience applauded when Hazel and Gus exchanged their first kiss, and got out of their seats many, many times for trips to the snack bar and restroom. I was so distracted that I did not need the Kleenex that my friends thoughtfully passed my way.
One of the things we discussed over dinner, after the movie, was whether movie versions of books are ever better than the books. I said I thought there were quite a few, but I could only come up with one example on the spot — Sarah’s Key. Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on it, I’ve thought of some more: The Devil Wears Prada . . . The Shawshank Redemption . . . Mystic River. I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that came to mind. We are looking forward to seeing the movie Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, this fall. I liked the book, but wasn’t wild about it (sorry! couldn’t resist); will the movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, be superior? Now, we need to make a choice for our summer get-together. Two that sound good to me are Tracks and The Hundred-Foot Journey. Suggestions are welcome!